Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Book notes 2 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - The Trolley Problem

Here is economist Steve Landsburg ("The Big Questions") on top form discussing the Trolley Problem:

"The Trolley Problem, Version 1: A trolley is hurtling out of control along a track, bearing down on five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. You can avert the disaster by flipping a switch that diverts the trolley to another track. Unfortunately, there is one man tied to that other track. Is it morally permissible (or for that case, morally mandatory) to flip the switch?


The Trolley Problem, Version 2: A trolley is hurtling out of control along a track, bearing down on five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. You can avert the disaster by pushing a man in front of it. Is it morally permissible (or for that case, morally mandatory) to push the man in front of the trolley?

Both actions have exactly the same consequences: Five lives saved. ...it seemed obvious to me that in either case, there's a moral case to sacrifice the one for the five. ...The very essence of moral judgements is that they're divorced from self-interest.  ... In other words, you moral judgements are the judgements you'd make if you could somehow forget who you are and what you've got at stake. ...This 'amnesia principle' comes to us from John Harsanyi, a Nobel-prize winning economist...

... I want to apply the amnesia principle to the trolley problem. In the first version, five people are tried to the track and one person to the other. If I've somehow forgotten who I am, I at least know this: I am five times as likely to be one of the five as to be the one alone. My death is therefore five times more likely if you fail to pull the switch. I hope you pull it.

In the second version .... my death is five times more likely if you fail to push the man. I hope you push him.
In one sense these calculations are entirely self-interested, but in another they're the very opposite. As long as I don't know who I am (and as long as I'm equally likely to be any given person as another), my 'self-interest' accounts for everyone's interests."

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